Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. Many of us celebrated by doing romantic dinners with significant others, buying roses, or champagne, or chocolate. Rich food, especially desserts.
All in the name of love.
St. Valentine has come to represent the essence of love and all that love means to us. On the other hand, I’ve been at Vons while men line up with flowers or chocolate or balloons (that say “I love you!”) or maybe all three. On their way home from work. I know I’ve spent last-minute time putting together something I hope would be meaningful for Sara, something that let her know I loved her. This year we planned ahead and decided we would have a nice dinner, a nice bottle of wine, and we would get each other a card. That’s it.
But, for us, that is enough for now.
So the question I have is about love, what it means for you, and how love makes sense in your life. Because if you know anything about St. Valentine you know that love for him meant his martyrdom. Which is why he is a saint.
St. Valentine lived in the third century near Rome according to some accounts. He was arrested for marrying Christians (which was forbidden) primarily so that they would not be forced to serve in the Roman Army. He was arrested, and when he would not stop his work (and also because he apparently tried to convert the Caesar to Christianity), he was beheaded. He was canonized late in the fifth century.
Feb. 14 was the day he was martyred, which is why that is the date we celebrate his sainthood.
What kind of love motivates someone to give their lives for another? What does that have to do with romance? As the song says, “What’s love got to do with it?”
In the Greco-Roman world in which Saint Valentine lived, there were three words for love. In English there is only one. While context is very important in English (I can say I love ice cream and I love my wife, and mean two different things, and most will get that.), the Greek language is more specific. The three words for love in ancient Greek are eros, philios and agape.
Eros is, generally, thought of as romantic love. You know, the flowers, chocolate kind of love. What we mostly celebrate on St. Valentine’s Day. And there is nothing wrong with romance. In fact, Sara and I have a mini celebration of our anniversary every 15th of the month, which is the date we got married. It’s always a special evening in some way. We also have “date night” on Fridays as often as we can. Busy lives often distance people from the intimacy they need, so it’s good to build in specific times to step back and simply spend time together without distractions.
But eros love is not for anyone but my wife.
Philios might be best understood as a love for one’s brothers and sisters, including those we are not directly related to. The City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, is a compound Greek word meaning just that. That kind of love is not romantic, but is a genuine concern for the welfare of those we are connected to.
And then there is agape. Often called God’s love. Jesus used agape in his command to love one another (John 15:12). It’s a love that is willing to lay down one’s life for another. For Christians it is the active advocacy that we have for the well-being of creation and all that live in it. It’s a love transcends all other loves, allows other loves to exist. It’s how God loves us.
Whether we like it or not.
The Rev. Ron Griffen is lead pastor of First United Methodist Church in El Centro.